This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report: Nuclear Power Gets a Second Look
Soon, most nuclear power plants in the United States, having gone on-line in the 1960s and 1970s, will be reaching the end of their 40-year operating licenses. If they are to continue operating, their licenses must be renewed, a process started 10 years ago by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in Rockville, Md.
The reasons for renewal are economic: the plants are almost paid for, and with construction out of the way, the costs of supplying electricity are finally competitive with those of other energy sources, such as coal and natural gas. But safety still concerns nuclear critics, troubled by the known and unknown hazards of aging. For example, cracks in the control rod mechanism, equipment at the heart of the reactor, were unforeseen and in fact previously thought not to exist. But they now seem a real aging problem after all, undermining confidence that more years of safe operation lie ahead.
So far, the licenses of a half-dozen reactors have been renewed: in spring of 2000, two at Maryland's Calvert Cliffs plant, in Lusby, and three at South Carolina's Oconee nuclear facility, in Seneca; and this past June, Arkansas Nuclear One Unit 1 in Russellville. The six were among the more than 40 percent of 103 operating U.S. reactors whose licenses will expire before 2015, perhaps while they are still capable of efficient and safe production. Forty reactors may soon join the six; 14 have renewal applications in the review pipeline at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the other 26 are expected to apply for renewal within the next six years.
In all likelihood, most of the nuclear fleet will follow suit, encouraged by the pathbreaking experiences of Calvert Cliffs and Oconee. These have graded what started out as a steep and expensive learning curve for the technical and regulatory part of the renewal procedure. As a prime example of beating that learning curve, Christopher Grimes, director of the NRC license renewal and standards branch, cited the license renewal of reactor unit 1 at the Arkansas Nuclear One facility. In June, Arkansas sailed from application to approval in a mere 17 months, compared with two years for Calvert and Oconee--a speed that may surprise those conditioned to a byzantine NRC regulatory system.
Utilities and regulators alike now express confidence in the smooth path they have developed. "Our initial experience with our license renewal process, by almost all measures, appears to have been successful," commissioner Greta Joy Dicus told the 16th International Conference on Structural Mechanics in Reactor Technology, held in August in Washington, D.C.
Unimpressed, nuclear opponents persist in questioning what has largely been a quiet process and say that government's expedited efforts to renew plants hamper meaningful public input [see "The Public's Window"]. Meanwhile, the rush to renew makes watchdog groups queasy about elderly reactors. They warn of heightened health hazards from an even greater accumulation of nuclear waste at reactor sites. And because no plant has in actuality operated for a full 40 years, the prospect of their safe management for 20 years more invites disbelief.
In favor of renewal
With initial construction costs paid for, two more decades with low overhead make future nuclear power more competitive with coal-burning and other kinds of power generation. Economically, the utilities' decision to renew "is a no-brainer," said Alan Nelson, senior project manager for licensing at the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear industry's Washington, D.C.-based trade group. The 20-year extension may not only justify the roughly $15 million it costs to navigate the renewal process but also in effect underwrite costly repairs and equipment replacement of high-priced items like steam generator systems that usually must be replaced sometime during a reactor's original 40-year term. "The economics, of course, of replacing the steam generators was made pretty simple by the issuance of the renewed license," Christopher H. Poindexter, chairman of Calvert's Constellation Energy Group, of Baltimore, Md., told a conference of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) last year in Atlanta, Ga.